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Americans Losing Their Faith in Faith … And Everything Else

The longstanding project called the General Social Survey, which has polled Americans about their feelings on a variety of political and social issues for more than 35 years, just recently came out with their preliminary 2008 data (which, I should warn you, is a little bit cumbersome to access).

One of my favorite sets of questions on the GSS is one that asks Americans about their degree of confidence in various social institutions; here is what those numbers looked like in 2008 as compared with eight years earlier before George W. Bush won the Presidency, as well as in 1976 when this question was first posed:

The only major institution to have gained a statistically significant about of trust since 2000 is the military, which is now the most trusted major institution in the country . The gain came as a result, presumably, of 9/11, with the number of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence in the military shooting up from 41 percent in 2000 to 57 percent in 2002. The figure peaked at 59 percent in 2004 and has fallen slightly since, but the rating was slightly higher in 2008 than it had been in 2006 before the Iraq conflict had begun to wind down.

Trust in major corporations plummeted following the Enron scandal and is off slightly further since. In fact, the 16 percent of Americans who said they have a great deal of confidence in such institutions is the lowest figure on record. Banks and financial institutions were holding up a bit better … until last year, when the trust score dropped to 19 percent from 30 percent two years earlier. This is not an all-time low — confidence in the banks had been slightly lower during the S&L crisis of the early 90s — although we’ll see where we end up once the financial crisis ends.

Confidence in organized religion also fell significantly under Bush’s watch, although most of the decline came between 2000 and 2002, when the rating dropped from 29 percent to 19 percent. I’m not sure whether that was the result of the Catholic priest scandals, some odd kind of ricochet from 9/11, or something else, but the scores have yet to really recover.

Medicine is less trusted than it once was — the 39 percent score it achieved in 2008 was an all-time low — and to a lesser extent so is science. Nobody, whatever their political persuasions, has much trust in the press, although the decline came long ago in the 1980s, perhaps as conservatives learned the utility of bashing the institution. And some instutitons are perennially unpopular — particularly the Congress, which has never polled higher in this survey than 17 percent (in 1984).

We are not a very trusting bunch, it would seem.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.